Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 323
Context: Angelo, having assumed command of Vienna upon Vincentio's supposed absence, has ordered strict compliance with laws which for many years have not been enforced. One such law requires capital punishment for getting a woman with child out of wedlock, and Claudio, a young gentleman of the city, is arrested for this violation even though he stanchly asserts that Julietta "is fast my wife,/ Save that we do the denunciation lack/ Of outward order." In his new position of authority, Angelo refuses to exercise mercy, claiming that only a rigid application of the letter of the law will redeem the city from its dissolute behavior. When the new ruler is warned by Escalus, an old counselor who is second-in-command, that he himself is subject to certain vices he so peremptorily condemns, Angelo pompously replies "'Tis one thing to be tempted, Escalus,/ Another thing to fall." In the course of the action of the play, however, this deputy is to become a prime illustration of the fact that absolute power corrupts absolutely. When confronted by Isabella, Claudio's sister, who pleads for her brother's life, Angelo lusts for her and treacherously offers her brother's life for her own honor, a pledge he does not intend to fulfill once he has satisfied his pleasure. Escalus' reaction to Angelo's decree early in the play serves two primary purposes: it heightens the tension by foreshadowing the major conflict between Angelo and Isabella, and it suggests ironically that the extremes of indiscriminate virtue and vice are equally heinous in that each is motivated by self-gratification which disregards the welfare of others:
See that Claudio
Be executed by nine to-morrow morning.
Bring him his confessor, let him be prepared,
For that's the utmost of his pilgrimage.
Well, Heaven forgive him, and forgive us all.
Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall.
Some run from breaks of ice, and answer none,
And some condemned for one fault alone.